This week we wrap up the summer-long resurrection of one of our favorite features, I ♥ Comics, where comics bloggers, creators and fans discuss the things they love about the medium.
This week, our guest contributor is Joe Casey, who has written comics like Godland, Automatic Kafka, Rock Bottom, The Milkman Murders and Full Moon Fever, in addition to just about every major character for Marvel, and many of DC’s as well.
They say honesty is the best policy, so I’ll just come right out with it: It might not be an easy thing to explain, this love I have for superhero team books. But I definitely have it. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. In any given month, usually more than half of the top ten best sellers in the Direct Market are team books. The fact is, team books have always been popular since the very beginning. The book that ushered in the Marvel Universe was a team book. The DC book that inspired that book was a team book. Just about all of the greatest success stories at both major publishers have been team books.
Now, there’s got to be a reason for this… some basic commonality that superhero team books — and their fans — share that can somehow illuminate their appeal in some sort of academic sense. Actually, there probably is, but for the most part I don’t think about that stuff. Sometimes love truly is beyond all rationalization. Like I said, that odds are that I really won’t be able to explain it with any great degree of clarity. But, what the hell, I’m going to give it a try…
George Perez (the Godfather of team book artists) once said he loved drawing team books because the day-to-day life of a working, comicbook professional can be a lonely one, and that the multi-character vibe that drawing a team book provides gave him at least the impression of an active social life. There’s something to that, even for the readers. The surrogate family aspect of team books. Sure, I buy it.
A brief, semi-related aside: there’s a pretty spot-on theory that all superhero books are, in their own way, team books. A series like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN isn’t just about Spider-Man. It’s about Aunt May and Mary Jane and J. Jonah Jameson and Black Cat and… well, you get the picture. BATMAN isn’t just about Batman. It’s also about Alfred, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman, etc. The best thing about superhero team books is that every cast member is generally a superhero. You don’t have to deal with all those pesky “civilian” characters getting in the way.
For me, I love the chemistry that happens when you put together the right group of characters on the page. At first, it’s a visual chemistry… the Vision just looks right next to Cap and Iron Man and Hawkeye. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman simply look like they belong together. Okay, so you might not know it when you see it… but I’ll bet you know it when it’s not there. The Beast and Wonder Man? They just sort of fit together. Iceman and Ghost Rider? Not so much. I love the surprise when someone new enters the picture and suddenly feels right at home. Another AVENGERS-related example: When Ms. Marvel guest appeared in the book during the Korvac Saga, she was sporting her Starlin-inspired first costume. For whatever reason, it just didn’t look good next to the other Avengers. She looked like an outsider. When she finally joined the team in issue #183, she was wearing the now-classic blue-with-the-thigh-highs costume and, lo and behold, she suddenly fit. The visual chemistry worked. I know, I know… it’s not the Theory of Relativity, but would you disagree?
(and, just to get my academic geek on a little more… how come ever since she was taken out of that costume — not long after she left the Avengers — she dropped back down to a C- or even D-level character? Now that she’s finally back in it… she’s got her own monthly book and she’s back in the Avengers. Visual chemistry. Thank you and don’t forget to tip your waitress. But back to loving team books…)
On a purely character level, I love seeing them interact with each other. It’s sort of a look behind the curtain… workplace drama of the kind I’ve always responded to. An Avengers meeting is as exciting to me as a knock down, drag out with the Masters of Evil. The JLA formulating their battle plan is often as nail biting as the actual execution of that plan. It’s the writer’s curiosity in me… what do these guys actually talk about when they’re not out in public, when they’re holed up in their Tower or on their Satellite?
Do I have favorites, you ask? You bet I do.
Now, the examples I site below will, more often than not, name check the primary writers involved in those series. At times, it may seem slightly unbalanced in the credit department. But listen, if I got into listing the multitude of artists that contributed to some of these long runs, we’d be here all day. And it’s certainly no secret that some of these favorite series of mine became favorite series of mine because they were drawn so well. But those artists grab plenty of well-deserved glory and, for the purposes of this piece, I’ve chosen to stand with my fraternity. And you can always gaze lovingly at the accompanying art to see just how great they looked…
AVENGERS #36-#202 (written by Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, David Michelinie and others) – The gold standard. For me, anyway. I can’t think of another modern, ongoing series that had as long a sustained run of quality. Okay, I’m biased… anyone who knows either me or my work probably knows I’m the world’s biggest AVENGERS fan. This run of 160+ issues is the reason why. There’s quite a bit of procedural writing in this book: How the team is run, how the various rosters are put together, who sits in the chairman seat, how they interact with various governmental organizations, etc. I don’t know… I just find that stuff fascinating. It’s the kind of thing that illuminates characters beyond their reactions in the heat of battle. Plus, there’s an emotional quotient to the best Avengers’ tales… personal character connections were usually at the heart of the stories we all think of now as “classic”. Hank Pym begat Ultron who begat the Vision who married the Scarlet Witch who is the sister of Quicksilver, both of them being Magneto’s children, etc. Even on top of all that, AVENGERS became the prototypical team book that, in a purely dramatic sense, most others would emulate for the next few decades. Englehart, in particular, actually created the template for the modern team book during his run: start small, build events to an ultimate, dramatic crescendo… then bring it back down to Earth (so to speak) and start small all over again. The next volume of ESSENTIAL AVENGERS (vol. 6, for those of you out there counting) is going to be a barnburner, and there’s probably no book I could recommend more highly.
DEFENDERS #1-124 (written by Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Steve Gerber, Dave Kraft, J.M. DeMatteis and others) – Okay, I’ll admit… I was never 100% down with the whole “non-team” gimmick, but whatever. I know a marketing gimmick when I see one. But thanks to the writers listed above, that gimmick was used, in my opinion, primarily as an excuse to take the modern Marvel team book — the AVENGERS template — into places it wouldn’t normally go. I loved how Englehart wasted no time in breaking the original paradigm of the team by adding Valkyrie (a genius left-field choice) and then demonstrating how different the Defenders really were by actually pitting them against the Avengers (no better way to distinguish your identity than to go toe-to-toe with your biggest competitor). Len Wein deserves a medal for bringing Nighthawk into the cast (a character who very shortly became, for my money, the one indispensable Defender). Soon after, Gerber rolled in with his Headmen/Badoon/Sons of the Serpent/Elf strangeness. Then came Dave Kraft with what I consider the high water mark for the series, “Who Remembers Scorpio?” Talk about a story that no other Marvel team book would dare to tell…! And finally, J.M. DeMatteis took the Defenders by the balls and proved exactly how much story potential could be found in this quirky little team book. Y’know, someone really needs to bring back the Defenders, don’t they? It’s just time. Now, I’d imagine the book would need to evolve out of its 70’s nostalgia, but it could definitely be done. Maybe someday…
NEW TEEN TITANS #1-44 + ANNUALS 1-3 (by Marv Wolfman and George Perez) – It took one book to save DC Comics in the still-burgeoning Direct Market in 1980. Of course, it was a team book. This team book. First of all, it sported an absolutely kick ass logo, courtesy of Todd Klein. Puts the one on the current series to shame (and, come to think of it, this might’ve been the first time the word “NEW” was placed in front of an old title to give it a little kick… and now everyone’s doing it). It’s also a fantastic template for a team book makeover. Take iconic sidekick characters (Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl) and put them together with great new characters (Cyborg, Starfire, Raven) and, just for kicks, revamp a nearly forgotten character, rename him and give him a winning personality (Changeling). It was pretty much a perfect equation. Do those comics hold up today? Hmmm… tough call on that one. I own all the trades and Archive editions that have been released in the past few years, but I haven’t been moved to sit down and read them with a 21st Century eye. Maybe it’s the concept, the construction and the general feeling of those comics that I still have so much reverence for. But, y’know, that’s enough. Maybe they don’t have to hold up. But, I’ll tell ya’, when I was eleven years old, the Perez-drawn cover to issue #9 (“Like Puppets on a String”) called out to me in a way that no DC Comic ever had before. I didn’t even buy it the first time I saw it… but that cover haunted me. It’s a great thing when the unspoken chemistry of a group of seven characters, just the way they looked together on a random cover… can actually haunt an eleven year old. Part of the magic of team books, I guess. Not to mention, I can say without a doubt that the Terra revelation rocked me to my prepubescent core and that I’d be hard pressed to think of a single comicbook I was more anxious to read than the final chapter of “The Judas Contract”.
JUSTICE LEAGUE #1-46 (written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis) –The concept was simple: show how superheroes interact when they’re behind closed doors, when they can relax a little. But forget the “Bwah-hahaha” crap, to me this book was still serious superheroics. I really feel like readers have forgotten how good the stories were, how gripping the conflicts could be, even the behind-the-scenes ones. Showdowns with the Rocket Reds, fighting the Grey Man, the machinations of Maxwell Lord, Millennium and Invasion, the first showdown with the Suicide Squad, and the return of Despero, recast as an alien killing machine. Okay, some of the jokes were funny, but these were not joke stories. The first year in particular had a political bent to it that I still respond to. And here’s an instance where I will name check two artists involved in the series: Kevin Maguire and Adam Hughes. Both brand new at the time, their work on this book made them superstars and rightly so. And it does make a salient point: ultimately, the series was the star, not necessarily the creators involved. At least, not until they worked on the series. But that’s what good team books can do. Now, having said that, when Hughes left, for whatever reason, I kinda’ checked out, too. Maybe I figured they couldn’t top the Despero/Death of Mister Miracle story. And it was roughly a decade before I read a Justice League comicbook again. But it was absolutely worth the wait…
JLA #1-41 (written by Grant Morrison) – I have another nutty little theory (y’know, I’ve got a million of ‘em)… Grant’s JLA saved modern mainstream superhero comics. Up until then, the quality stuff (STARMAN, SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE, Alan Moore’s WILDC.A.T.S., Ellis’ STORMWATCH) had been marginalized to the point of cultural non-impact with the general perception of top-selling mainstream superheroes being either X-Crap or Image (or Image-style) pin-up comics. And then JLA came along… not only sporting an iconography that big time superhero books had been lacking for years, but the sheer kinetic energy found in the storytelling was a potent reminder that superhero team books didn’t have to be navel-gazing exercises in continuity minutiae. They could still be packed with power and majesty. And let’s not forget, JLA still tackled the time-honored tropes of team books head on, from meeting tables to h.q. cutaway maps to dramatic shakeups in the cast. Personally, my favorite lineup isn’t the original “Big Seven”, nor is it the later, “Camelot”-style lineup. It’s the “Rock Of Ages” lineup. The Big Seven plus Aztek, Connor Hawke and a late assist from Plastic Man. I dunno, it just buttered my toast in exactly the right way. Maybe because it only lasted for that one storyline and didn’t have a chance to run itself into the ground. Speaking of which, has anyone else noticed that the scope and the glorious audacity of the “Rock Of Ages” storyline has yet to be matched? It’s like Grant threw down the gauntlet and no one has dared to pick it up. By far the most important team book — to me, anyway — of the last fifteen years (and, if you’re counting, the second team book to save DC’s ass… in my eyes, at least).
SEVEN SOLDIERS #0 (written by Grant Morrison) – One of my favorite single issues of anything in the past few years. Leave it to Grant to boil it all down to one issue, where he — along with breathtaking art by J.H. Williams — gave me everything I loved about team books… and then took it all away by killing everyone. Again, it was just the odd chemistry so successfully presented in just a few pages that hooked me. A Seven Soldiers team that was only six strong. But those six disparate heroes — the Vigilante, the Whip, Boy Blue, Dyno-Mite Man, Gimmix and I, Spyder — made up a quirky little team that I really wanted to read more about, and their quick demise just made me want them that much more. Maybe that was Grant’s point all along. I dunno, I’ve never asked him. Damn him… damn him all to hell…
Sure, there are certainly others worth mentioning: ALL-STAR COMICS #58-74 (these were my Justice Society stories, thanks to Conway, Wood, Giffen, Levitz and Staton), SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS #1-15 (horrible but inspiring), INVADERS #1-28 (Roy Thomas/Frank Robbins goodness), THRILLER #1-7 (an odd little gem of a team book that hugely inspired certain strands of my work). I could definitely go on. And on. But the fact is, I’ve got my own team books to write…
Fortunately, you guys can add your comments and tell the world which superhero team books — past and present — really float your boat. I know I’ll be reading the responses. Like I said, I love this stuff… I love talking about it… I love reading about it… so get to commenting and let the superhero team book love know no bounds…!
proud writer of many team books, such as AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES (I and II), FF: FIRST FAMILY, WILDCATS (vol. 2 and Version 3.0), THE INTIMATES, UNCANNY X-MEN, G.I. JOE: AMERICA’S ELITE, KISS, YOUNGBLOOD and the upcoming **** *********.